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Tourism: State error cuts into county marketing funds

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Tourism officials were feeling good last month about the number of visitors coming to Georgetown County last fall and winter. Reports said collections of accommodations taxes through January were up 88 percent, more than any coastal county.

Not so fast, members of the county Tourism Management Commission were told last week. Those big numbers were wrong. The S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism notified Lauren Cobb, county marketing director, that the state Department of Revenue had made a $278,178 overpayment last quarter and would be taking that money back next quarter.

The memo said payments from out-of-state accommodations taxpayers were erroneously classified as collections from the city of Aiken and unincorporated Georgetown County.

“Earlier reports reflect significantly inflated totals for those two counties,” the memo said, “while understating the balance in other counties where the collections actually took place.”

Adjustments were made in the March collection numbers: $278,000 for Georgetown County and $1.1 million for Aiken.

“This is not the first time this has happened,” Brian Tucker, president of the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce, told members of the commission last week. “It’s frustrating from a budget and placement standpoint. The way the state budget continues to get contorted, nobody in Columbia watches these numbers. DOR is a mess.”

Cobb proposed cutting spending by $14,000 in May and $47,000 in August to keep the Commission budget on track with funds designated automatically for marketing from accommodations taxes. Those marketing funds amount to 30 percent of collections after removing $25,000 for the general fund of the home county.

Georgetown County was caught in another revenue department correction cycle last summer. It was forced to trim grants for local tourism to make up the difference for a $65,000 overpayment error. Members of the county’s Accommodations Tax Advisory Commission were frustrated and wanted answers from the state.

The county finance director, Scott Proctor, said the latest situation was “strange” and planned to contact the revenue department in Columbia for a detailed explanation. “The dollar amount is very significant,” he said.

The state’s correction will not affect grants made for tourism by County Council last month, including $288,478 for marketing. The commission plans to roll that grant money into its next fiscal year’s budget. Cobb said moving the spring grant into the next fiscal year would keep the organization’s accounting more accurate.

The proposed county marketing plan for 2013-14 with $871,390 in spending. The plan includes $90,000 from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and $360 interest. The remainder will come from accommodations taxes, which are 2 percent on short-term rentals in unincorporated areas of the county.

While the majority of the county’s marketing efforts will be done online, tourists are still being sought in print. Plans call for spending $36,400 for ads in AAA World and $37,300 in the Southern Living Travel Directory. The county will also have space in the AAA Go Carolinas, $11,000; SCPRT’s Vacation Guide, $14,000; S.C. Heritage Corridor Magazine, $5,200; and On The Beach Magazine, $10,000. Total print media cost is expected to be $113,900.

Proposed cost of interactive media in the marketing plan is $408,400. Some expenses in that category are for the Net Seer Banner Network, $106,000; lead generation through eBrains, $57,500; Atlanta Journal Constitution website banners, $35,900; and Facebook, $30,000.

And if the funds are available, the commission plans to spend $20,000 on billboards in the Charleston and Charlotte areas. Those would be up for eight weeks in the spring and eight weeks in the summer.

The proposal has $20,000 for creative and production services and $16,000 for website upgrades, domains and hosting. Administrative expenses will be $112,000, with $105,000 of that going to the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce. An agreement in place through this fiscal year has the chamber returning $25,000 to the county for tourism marketing.

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